Tennessee begins its 2018 NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Wright State. CBS Sports' Reid Forgrave had a chance to talk with Volunteers star Grant Williams and those around him last month about how he and UT turned low preseason expectations into being a No. 3 seed in one of the nation's best surprise stories.
There are a lot of impressive basketball things about Grant Williams, the tough, hard-working sophomore power forward who has led No. 15 Tennessee – a team that was picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC but now has a real shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – to become one of the biggest surprises of this upside-down college basketball season.
But we're not going to start with the basketball things.
Because when a 19-year-old potential NBA player can call himself a "Renaissance man" and not at all be exaggerating – and when his AAU coach used to call him a "Renaissance man," too – you don't start with the basketball things. You start with the other things.
Like with music. Music has been a central part of Williams' life since he was born. You can't be a member of his family without a heavy music influence; his father, Gil Williams, worked for years in the music industry, serving as a bodyguard for pop stars like Michael Jackson and Prince. His grandfather lived just down the street in Charlotte, and growing up, Grant and his four older brothers would spend hours at Pop Pop's house, listening to him play the piano. Pop Pop got his first piano in 1951.
He took some money from his job painting houses, walked into Parker Garner Music Store in Charlotte, and bought a piano on a payment plan. Now his house has a baby grand piano and a dozen keyboards. Pop Pop would play improvisational jazz every morning. Grant grew up listening to Pop Pop playing John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." That song is on Williams' pregame iPod mix. So are "I Smile" by gospel singer Kirk Franklin (one of his mother's favorites), "Can You Stand the Rain" by the R&B group New Edition (one of his father's favorites), "Call Casting" by the rap trio Migos (one of his brother's favorites) and "Wild for the Night" by the rapper A$AP Rocky (one of his other brother's favorites). His Tennessee teammate Brad Woodson has been trying to get him into country music. Williams can now sing along to the Jason Aldean song "Big Green Tractor."
"It's something I take pride in," Williams told CBSSports.com. "I like to be up to date and enjoy different things with different groups of people."
But a Renaissance man does not just enjoy music. A Renaissance man plays music, too. When Williams was 7 years old, his grandfather gave him his first instrument: A clarinet. Over the years, he's learned to play 10 different instruments. He estimates he can play four well: Piano, drums, violin and clarinet. When Williams chose Tennessee over Ivy League schools such as Yale and Princeton, his grandfather gave him one of his keyboards and an amplifier. Williams has it in the living room of his apartment. He tries to practice a half hour a day, but that can get difficult during the basketball season.
There are other things that make Williams one of the most fascinating players in college basketball.
- Like chess. All of his brothers – Grant's the youngest of five boys – play chess. He was once nationally ranked at chess. He believes it helps him at basketball; chess is all about knowing your opponent's strengths and weaknesses and exploiting them.
- Or languages. Williams is minoring in Spanish. He just started Spanish 323 this semester, Composition and Grammar, and he's writing papers all in Spanish. It's hard. Last summer, Tennessee took an international trip to Spain, and Williams loved conversing with the natives. His goal is to be fully bilingual soon. In a few years, he hopes to be trilingual: Maybe French, maybe Chinese.
- Or dancing. Williams can dance. His fifth grade teacher taught Williams how to do the traditional Irish Riverdance-style dancing. As a high school senior, Williams dressed up in a sailor outfit and sang and tap-danced in one of the lead roles of the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes."
- Or academics. Alongside his basketball trophies at his mother's house is Williams' Math Bowl trophy. He stood in line for the release of new Harry Potter books. At AAU tournaments, he'd be the only player who'd be sitting in the stands with his nose in a 5-inch-thick book between games.
"He's one of a kind, one of those kids who has the ability to light up the room when he walks into it," said Brian Field, Williams' high school coach at Providence Day School in Charlotte. "He gets along with all different types of people. He's hard on his teammates but they all got along, and beyond that he got along remarkably well with faculty members and all kinds of kids, the athletes, the non-athletes, the kids who are into drama or the arts. He wasn't just the star basketball player. He fit into so many different circles on our campus."
But he certainly was the star basketball player in high school. Yet amazingly Tennessee was the only high-major school recruiting him. Williams wasn't even considered a top-150 recruit coming out of high school. His decision came down to Tennessee or an Ivy League school, which Williams thought as deciding between chasing a professional basketball career or using basketball to prepare himself for another career. His parents wanted him to go to Yale. But he hit it off with Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and his staff, who gave Williams a clean plan for basketball development as well as an academic plan that will get him a master's degree in four years. Plenty of high-major coaches have since returned to Field's gym and told him they flat-out screwed up in not recruiting Williams because they thought he was undersized.
Barnes had another player in his Texas coaching stint that he thought would be great to model Williams' career after: P.J. Tucker.
"No one in the state of North Carolina recruited P.J.," Barnes told CBSSports.com. "And he came to Texas and was the Big 12 player of the year. I saw that in Grant. Like P.J., he didn't do it all the time. The next step is, Can he get consistent? Can he get hungrier? If he is satisfied, he lays off. P.J. Tucker had the same thing. Because those guys are a little undersized, so they need to work for it."
"If Grant continues to move forward," Barnes said, "he hasn't even scratched the surface. The league is full of those guys who weren't rated with big stars coming out of high school. But you gotta be able to continue to work."
So far so good for Williams. This season he's been nothing short of one of the most impactful players in the country. He's averaging 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds for a Tennessee team that's tied for second in the SEC and has wins over Purdue, Texas A&M and Kentucky (twice). Tennessee has a stingy defense and an aggressive mentality on the boards, and it's Williams who sets that tone. Tennessee doesn't always win pretty. But they win the way you'd expect a team with zero top-100 recruits to win: By sharing the ball and outworking their opponents. With the toughest part of its SEC schedule out of the way – the only team remaining on Tennessee's scheduled that's ranked in the top 50 on KenPom.com is Florida, who the Volunteers host Feb. 21 – this team has a realistic shot at continuing to rise in the polls.
Williams comes by the basketball skills as naturally as he comes by the musical talent. Four of his five brothers play basketball. Williams' dad is a basketball Hall of Famer at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota. His great-uncle played for the Harlem Globetrotters, and his uncle played basketball at Fisk University in Nashville.
"He was a late basketball bloomer," his father said. "I always believed he'd be something special. He had the hands, the body. But I remember watching him as a kid. He was always on the ground, just constantly on the ground. That's why I knew he was going to be a player."
One of Williams' greatest abilities as a basketball player is that he knows who he is. What his strength is now is dominating the inside. He knows that stretching out his game will make him more appealing to NBA teams, but for now he's living in the paint. When you ask him what player he emulates, he doesn't name some superstar. He's working on becoming more like Tony Allen, the tenacious defender.
And if the NBA doesn't work out, it sounds like he has plenty of other options. Who knows – maybe he could follow in his mother's career path. She's worked as a NASA engineer for more than 30 years.